All the Single Ladies

Today, only around 20 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine are wed, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960. Rebecca Traister sets out to investigate this trend at the intersection of class, race and sexual orientation, supplementing facts with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures.

All the Single Ladies is a remarkable portrait of how single women shaped contemporary American life.

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All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister is part sociological study, part memoir and part feminist polemic that combines to create a compulsively readable and intersectional text that, for me at least, was as empowering as it was educational.

Through extensive research and interviews with women from a range of racial and economic backgrounds, Traister paints a fascinating portrait of female singlehood in the US  – though as a single woman living in the UK most of it felt entirely applicable.

I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intersectional feminist text written by a white lady. It’s an exploration of the decline in marriage and rise of female independence that consistently holds the feminist movement to account for its failings and exclusion of women of colour, queer women and working class women throughout history and today. Traister makes sure to acknowledge at every step that the barriers and obstacles white women face are so often different than those faced by women of colour, and that the standards those women of colour are expected to meet are unrealistically and absurdly higher.

All the Single Ladies casts a huge net, looking at women’s careers, friendships, unmarried and single mothers, sex, adult virginity (chosen and somewhat accidental – the I was busy doing other things  people we very rarely acknowledge), religion and fertility. Traister manages to tackle it all with a relatively neutral brush (apart from when Phyllis Schlafly came up but you kind of have to give a girl a break as far as that can of worms in concerned), covering a wide range of lifestyles without casting judgement on any of them – single through choice or circumstance, married happily, unhappily or divorced, there was no sense any particular lifestyle was superior.

Ultimately, that’s the point I took from the book. That women – all women – should be able to live however to hell we want. You know, like white men have been doing for literally the whole of history. Get married or don’t. Have kids or don’t. What we want, and what I desperately hope we’re heading towards is a future in which women can live however they like without all the misogynistic bullshit.

Single, partnered or in a long term relationship, I can’t recommend this book enough. Looking at the strides we’ve taken in redefining womanhood, married and single life in the last century was inspiring – and looking at where change still needs to happen totally motivating. Traister is a fantastic writer, and I had a great time being enlightened by her.

‘A true age of female selfishness, in which women recognised and prioritised their own drives to the same degree to which they have always been trained to tend to the needs of all others, might, in fact, be an enlightened corrective to centuries of self-sacrifice.

Amina Sow agrees. The advice she gives everyone is “Always choose yourself first. Women are very socialised to choose other people. If you put yourself first, it’s this incredible path you can forge for yourself.” Amina too understood how she sounded as the words were coming out of her mouth. “If you choose yourself people will say you’re selfish,” she said. “But no. You have agency. You have dreams. It takes a lot of qualify a man as selfish.”’

Heck. Yes.

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March favourites

March: two lots of snow, endless rain and the occasional glimpse of sunlight. I am so ready for spring. Despite the weather, it’s been quite a good life month. The company I’ve been writing for the past year have extended my contract yet again, leaving me free of career panic until the autumn. It’s funny to think that this time last year I was in a constant state of anxiety about having zero life direction, but now that I do, and not only that but am actually earning money doing the thing I ultimately want to spend my life doing,  I live in constant fear of it all going away. This adulthood thing never lets up.

This is why we have books and Netflix. Speaking of, without further ado, here are my favourites for March:

TV: Jessica Jones & Sneaky Pete

Come on! There was no way I could choose only one. I adored both of these shows from their premieres and having them both return in the same month was the best kind of televisual gift.

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JJ thoughts: Why do I love you so much when all you ever do is hurt me?

Sneaky Pete

Sneaky Pete thoughts: I am so ready for some kind of Marius and Julia heist situation. Also real Pete is such a gem he almost (*almost*) made up for the lack of Eddie in season 2.

Podcast: The 50th episode of The Bright Sessions

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The Bright Sessions, for the uninitiated, is a wonderful fictional podcast by Lauren Shippen about people with supernatural abilities in therapy. It’s very much the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of podcasts – a tense and dramatic supernatural show that is actually a heart-rending examination of fucked up people and their messy lives. I adore it, and for their fiftieth run, in true Buffy style, they did a musical episode. At the start, I was smiling in the uniquely joyful way you do when your faves burst into song unexpectedly, by the end I was a tearful, emotional mess. This weird little show packs a serious emotional punch, and I will be very sad when it ends later this year.

Random stuff: The Bleed

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I used to be a huge fan of the Lenny Letter. When it first came out it felt like it was addressing this huge gap in my reading life, as well as showing me a model of what I could achieve with my own writing if I really put my mind to it. Though Lena Dunham is a controversial figure and has frequently been wrong, even as I was irked by her, I stuck with the newsletter, because I thought what it was doing was of value. But after how she and Jenni Konner responded to Aurrora Perrineu’s allegation of sexual assault against their friend Murray Miller, I was out. Both Dunham and Konner betrayed everything they ever stood for – and I just didn’t feel right supporting their work after that. But I missed Lenny, and wanted an injection of women-centred journalism coming in my inbox on the reg. Enter The Bleed, the Call Your Girlfriend podcast newsletter. Every month, Aminatou, Ann and Gina post a list of the articles they loved from the month, and it is informative and fantastic and has somewhat plugged the hole left behind by Lenny – though if you have further suggestions of high quality feminist content online please throw them my way.

Special mention: Mike Coulter’s Instagram account

He is an adorable man and I love having him in my feed.

Did you have a fun March? Any faves I should know about?

 

The F Word

Here’s to the girl who knows you inside out. The work wife, our long distance confidant, and tea chat companions. To the one who is cripplingly honest, and the new friends we’re yet to meet.

When I look back on my life almost every decision, experience and memory comes with a female companion somewhere behind the scenes – supporting me, pushing me, or telling me outright that I’m in the wrong.

If I could offer one piece of invaluable advice for women and girls of all ages, it’s that there is nothing more important than creating and maintaining strong, positive and happy friendships with other women.

They might be complex and emotional, but they’re the mini love stories that make us who we are; they move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses, and they shape us into the women we want to become.

The F Word is a celebration of female friendships… all strings attached.

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The F Word: A Personal Exploration of Modern Female Friendship by Lily Pebbles is the love letter to the strength, tenacity, complexity and fun of female friendships I’ve always wanted to read.  One of my besties sent it to me as an International Women’s Day gift.

Yep. I’m lucky like that.

It has bothered me for a long time the relatively low status that friendships have. We’re all about love and sex, as if those relationships are the only ones you need, so much so that, for some people, that becomes their truth. I think we’ve all had at least one friend who vanishes without a trace the moment they get into a romantic relationship. But for me, my female friends are some of the most important in my life – and not just because I’m single. In the past, female friendships have also been the sources of some of my greatest heartbreaks. I still feel a little bit sad thinking back to when I was 9 and my best friend at the time, Lara, told me that she didn’t want to be my best friend anymore, because I didn’t ride horses and Zoe did ride horses so she was going to be best friends with her instead. Brutal.

In The F Word, Lily covers all that and more. Through a collection of her own experiences interwoven with those of the women around her, she breaks down different kinds of friendships and the roles they play in our lives. She sketches familiar figures, from the ‘work wife’ and the ‘big sister friend’ to the BFF (it’s not a person, it’s a tier) and the BFFN or ‘best friend for now’.  Crucially, I think, she made clear that #friendshipgoals isn’t only one thing – it isn’t only the 90s Friends-style daily hangouts in your nearest coffee shop, sometimes it’s only seeing someone a couple of times a year but always being able to pick up right where you left off. Other times it’s organising Skype dates with someone who lives on the other side of the planet, or drifting away for a time only to come back together later on, when your lives are once again in sync. She makes clear that the length and depth of a friendship is much greater than a single Instagram post, which, in a world where something is only legitimate once it’s online, is important.

There is so much goodness in this book. Whether she’s discussing how to be a good friend, maintaining friendships even once you’re romantically attached or the thorny subject of toxic friendships, Lily approaches it all with empathy and a sort of calm wisdom I’m told you find once you’ve reached the end of your twenties. Lily, as anyone who has ever dived into her YouTube videos will know, is a very calming presence, and that sense of her is sprinkled all over the book. I can easily imagine myself returning to it on a rainy Sunday when I’m in need of a comfort read.

Most of all, The F Word leaves you feeling inspired by your community of women, and even more crucially, open to letting more into your life. This book is the perfect antidote to the Mean Girls crap we’ve been fed out whole lives. Female friendships are the best. I’m so happy we’re finally acknowledging it.

 

Genuine Fraud

IMOGEN: is a runaway heiress, an orphan, a cook and a cheat.

JULE: is a fighter, a social chameleon and an athlete.

Imogen and Jule. Jule and Imogen.

An intense friendship. A disappearance. A murder, or maybe two. A bad romance, or maybe three.

Blunt objects, disguises, blood and chocolate. The American dream, superheroes, spies and villains. A girl who refuses to give people what they want from her. A girl who refuses to be the person she once was.

A girl who is a… genuine fraud.

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Spoilers ahead.

I adore E Lockhart. There are very few authors who have been with me as long as she has, and many of her books were very formative for my younger self. I picked up The Boyfriend List when I was in my early teens, and it cemented forever my love of contemporary YA fiction. A series about the heartbreak of broken female friendships, mental health and first love, it was everything I needed at that point in my life. Then she released The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which remains one of my favourite books to this day. The feminism, experimental writing – the way she manipulated language in that book really woke me up the possibilities of what writing can be – and complicated characters marked a shift in Lockhart’s writing career that she has expanded on in fascinating and often heartrending ways in subsequent novels.

Almost all of Lockhart’s work is concerned with female outsiders. Whether it’s Ruby becoming a social pariah after losing her boyfriend to her best friend, Gretchen Kaufman feeling like the only boring girl in art school or Frankie Landau-Banks tearing her boarding school apart proving her superiority to the boys who discounted her, all of her books are somehow concerned with women on the fringes – by choice or otherwise.

Then she released We Were Liars, and further built on her evolving writing style, creating a female outsider so alienated from everyone around her that even the reader didn’t realise she was lying to us until it was too late.

In Genuine Fraud, she’s done it again. Jule is perhaps the most unreliable narrator of them all, but unlike Cadence in We Were Liars, she isn’t trying to hide it. We know that Jule is a liar, it’s what she’s lying about that remains mysterious.

Genuine Fraud is a book told backwards, with fascinating consequences. To read it is to have constant whiplash, as every truth you’ve taken for granted is turned on its head, picked apart and then re-established as something else entirely. Jule tells stories about herself to craft an identity that she can live with, and has so completely assimilated with these adopted identities that it’s all but impossible to differentiate between the truth of Jule and the illusion she has thrown up for us and everyone else – but most crucially, for herself.

In her latest offering, E Lockhart has crafted yet another novel that keeps up guessing throughout. Her rejection of chronology creates a story filled with tension, manipulation and the occasional explosion of violence. It looks at how one snap decision to lie can change the direction of your entire life.

It’s quite an experience.

 

Her Body and Other Parties

In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling stories map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.

Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and other Parties is wicked and exquisite.

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Does anyone else really dread reviewing certain books? Please tell me that it’s not just me.

Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado came to me, like so many of my reads, through the Belletrist book club. I found this genre-bending short story collection challenging, confusing, disturbing and often beautifully expressed.

I would classify the reading experience as: uncomfortable.

This collection of erotic horror fairy tales isn’t made for a passive reading experience. As the title suggests, Machado’s collection is intimately concerned with women’s bodies in their desires, peculiarities and wounds. It isn’t for the faint of heart – or stomach. From the first story, called ‘The Husband’s Stitch’ (if you live in a world where you don’t know the meaning of that term, I can only advise you remain that way and don’t Google it), Machado unflinchingly studies the violence women’s bodies undergo by society, partners and themselves – there is more than one very sensory depiction of squeezing out a puss-ey lesion in this collection. Think Josh Chan’s recent staph infection on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But worse.

Machado uses her collection to engage with the various ways that women’s bodies are under attack. In ‘The Husband’s Stitch’, we see much of the narrator’s life, from meeting her husband and falling in love, to having a child and in turn seeing him grow up. She’s consumed by passed along tales of woe of women who tried to step outside the boundaries of the roles ascribed to them by their gender only to have it all end in disaster, and self-polices her own desires accordingly. She considers her marriage happy – if interspersed with moments in which her husband’s lack of respect becomes clear. Their marriage has only one real conflict. The narrator has worn around her neck for her whole life a green ribbon, and she will not allow her husband to touch it. Though she shares herself with him in every other respect, he cannot get over the fact that he is not allowed to touch this green ribbon. He can’t allow her to be the sole owner of even one single part of herself, and when she finally gives in and allows him possession of the thing she so desperately wished to keep as her own, horror ensues.

In another story, ‘Eight Bites’, a woman has weight loss surgery only to find the removed fat assembles itself into a creature that lives in her house. The creature has no eyes or ears or nose or mouth and when the woman comes into contact with it for the first time, she attacks it – kicking it, stabbing it, ripping it to pieces.

“I find myself wishing she would fight back, but she doesn’t. Instead, she sounds like she is being deflated. A hissing, defeated wheeze.”

This violence against the self – first more ethereal before becoming painfully, flinchingly literal is familiar to us all as we are bombarded everywhere we look of images of the ‘ideal bikini body’, where weight loss isn’t a cause for concern but for praise. I always remember this one time when I went to see a Katherine Ryan stand up show; she spoke about her divorce and how the trauma of it caused her to lose a ton of weight. When she saw herself in the mirror she thought she looked like she had a horrific disease. Everyone else? Well, they complimented her on how great she looked so skinny.

Her Body and Other Parties is a haunting collection of mostly horrifying stories built on the truths of patriarchy. From the episode-by-episode rewrite of Law and Order: SVU – a show which creates entertainment out of sexual violence against women – Machado tells the haunting tale of a detective followed by the ghosts of murdered women, to ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, in which women across the country are becoming incurably incorporeal – the faded women haunt the streets of cities and have themselves sewn into the seams of designer dresses – she tells the disturbing tale of what it is to be a woman in a world in which your body is forever under attack.

Not all books are supposed to be comfortable, and Her Body and Other Parties definitely took me to my limits of self-inflicted anxiety. It’s a strange book that I find difficult to recommend, exactly, but would encourage you to read anyway.

The Answers

Trigger warning: sexual assault.

Mary is out of options. Estranged from her family, plagued by debt and beset by phantom pain, she signs up for ‘The Girlfriend Experiment’ – a mysterious project masterminded by a famous Hollywood actor who, frustrated by romantic and creative failure, hires a collection of women to fulfil the different roles of a relationship.

Mary is to play the Emotional Girlfriend, alongside a Maternal Girlfriend, a Mundanity Girlfriend, an Anger Girlfriend and, of course, an Intimacy Team. Each woman has her debts and her difficulties, her past loves and her secrets. As Mary and the actor are drawn ever closer together, the nature of the experiment changes, and the Girlfriend’s find themselves exposed to new perils, foremost among them love.

Here, then, is a novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which plumb the depths of the human heart, and answers that will leave you reeling.

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“Sometimes it seems all I have are questions, that I will ask the same ones all my life. I’m not sure if I even want any answers, don’t think I’d have a use for them, but I do know I’d give anything to be another person – anyone else – for even just a day, an hour. There’s something about that distance I’d do anything to cross.”

The Answers by Catherine Lacey presents an unsettling premise as a means of exploring themes of identity, feminism and romantic relationships in one of my favourite reads of the year.

Mary has run out of options. Beset with a mysterious and debilitating illness no doctor could name or solve (“Whole hospitals shrugged.), on the recommendation of her hippy friend, Chandra, she turns to an alternative therapy: PAKing. PAKing (Pnuema Adaptive Kinesthesia) seems to work – though Mary suspects the placebo effect – the relief it brings her leaves her with no choice but to proceed with the cripplingly expensive sessions. In order to pay for her treatments, she signs up for a strange-sounding side hustle, The Girlfriend Experiment (or the GX, as it comes to be known) with a famous actor she has never heard of, Kurt Sky.

There is so much to love about The Answers: Lacey’s poetic yet sharp writing, the personification of the emotional labour of women with Emotional Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend as actual paid jobs, the irony of the title – The Questions would be a much more accurate name – and the off-putting, almost dystopic premise of the GX.

Early on, Mary states that “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person”, a thought that forms a kind of mission statement for a book consumed with the reasons relationships fail. It is a study of variously damaged people looking to escape themselves  – Mary is unable to make meaningful connections with others because of the complete breakdown of her relationship with her parents whose religion dictates they must live ‘off the grid’; Ashley, another participant in the GX is angry at a world that will only define her by her beauty; Kurt is unable to move past the loss of his mother in his childhood and is consumed by his own toxic masculinity; Matheson, Kurt’s assistant, is stuck serving a man who will never love him back; Chandra is (probably) in a cult.

The GX is also more than it seems. Envisioned initially as the answer to Kurt’s, and perhaps, everybody’s, problems – “truly innovative technological solutions to emotional and psychological problems that were previously thought to be just part of the human condition” – it is derailed by a team of scientists with ulterior motives. Less interested in cracking the key to relationships, the scientists instead want to decode feelings, specifically how to not feel them, or to only feel those things that can be considered “useful”. Girls in the GX are manipulated into feeling love, anger, rejection – even Kurt is programmed to experience moments of emotional intimacy with the women he did not consent to.

Even as the plot veers into the bizarre, Lacey’s intense engagement with her subject matter leads to a work that is painfully human. It was impossible not to see your own feelings reflected in the novel – haven’t we all at some point wished to turn an emotion off? – your own questions, insecurities and feelings of isolation in a world increasingly geared toward leaving us separated from our own, and each other’s, truths.

It was funny to read a novel called The Answers that was so utterly devoid of them. But that, Lacey makes clear, is the point.

5 Reasons to Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I adore this show, but for whatever reason, I have a really hard time selling Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to people. The premise of the show is pretty stupid: hotshot New York Lawyer Rebecca Bunch moves to the shitty California town of West Covina to pursue the boy who broke her heart at summer camp when she was seventeen. And it’s a musical.

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But it’s also a frank look at mental illness, feminism and romcom culture; it deconstructs the idea that a relationship is the solution to all problems. And it’s a musical.

It’s a fantastic show. Let’s talk about some of the reasons why.

  1. The songs

So far so obvious, but the songs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are hilarious and catchy while also functioning as vehicles through which to communicate greater emotional truths. So in the second episode when Rebecca meets Josh (the guy she moved to West Covina for’s) girlfriend, Valencia, her song about her own superiority over Rebecca (featuring lines such as ‘I’m not afraid to get tattoos/and they are all in Sanskrit/butt stuff doesn’t hurt at all/most times I prefer it) ends with the line ‘my father didn’t leave me.’

It’s a funny song about how we compare ourselves to other women that reveals an important truth about Rebecca. Her dad abandoned her.

And it was the song that made me fall in love with the show.

  1. Bisexuality!

This is a minor spoiler (sorry not sorry), but one of the storylines half way through the first season sees Rebecca’s boss Darryl come out as bisexual. As we all know, representation of bisexual people is pretty much non-existent on most shows, and on the rare occasions we do see it portrayal is overwhelmingly negative. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend we see a divorced man with a daughter heading into middle age realising that he’s attracted to men as well as women, going through the process of coming out and then having a happy, healthy relationship with a very cute guy. For a group so often marginalised even within the LGBTQ+ community, this storyline felt important.

darryl

  1. Complex (like really really complex) women

There is a trope on a lot of shows of the perfect girl getting with the complicated, emotionally unavailable guy (Gossip Girl, New Girl, Veronica Mars, every teen movie from the 80s) that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend really turns on its head. Rebecca is the kind of girl to cause her therapist despair. She’s a woman trying to figure out how to make herself okay without really knowing how to go about doing that. And it doesn’t really matter whether she’s likeable or not during the process.

As someone who is sick of watching shows about women trying to ‘fix’ difficult men, I found this beyond refreshing.

  1. Diverse cast

Josh Chan, the romantic interest and male lead of the show is a first generation Filipino American man. Unless they’re John Cho, Asian men are generally typecast into very limited stereotypes and those generally don’t feature much in the way of romance or sex. Josh Chan turns that on its head by being basically the bro-iest bro in bro-town. He is a complex romantic interest with storylines (and issues! So many issues.) all of his own. In a world where seeing Aziz Ansari perform a sex scene is considered ground-breaking, characters like Josh Chan are so, so needed.

  1. Feminism

How can a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend be feminist? I hear you ask. In all sorts of ways, it turns out. Through the mediums of song and melodrama the show tackles everything from eating disorders to abortion from a very unique perspective. It is also puts a lot of energy into satirising ‘feminism’ as empowertising, with songs like Put Yourself First sung during a typical post-boy problem makeover. Sample lines include:

‘Put yourself first girl worry ‘bout yourself/make yourself sexy just for yourself/so when dudes we see you put yourself first/they’ll be like damn you’re hot/Wanna make out?’

 patriarchal bullshit

It’s a great and terribly underappreciated show. The first two seasons are on Netflix and they are working on a third as I type, so you’ve got plenty of time to catch up with the trials (because she’s a lawyer! It’s funny!) and tribulations of Rebecca Bunch before the third season begins.